My introduction to short-term mission was very hot and very humid. One night in Jackson, Mississippi, we visited at someone's house--I couldn't begin to remember whose--but I remember thinking as I walked out into the garden that I had never in my entire life been anywhere near as hot and sweaty as I was during that two-week Mississippi sojourn--and we'd just moved from Arizona.
But I also remember the Civil War lesson I learned at a Mississippi overlook where, once upon a time, 150 years ago, General U. S. Grant tightened his fist around Vicksburg until there was no more breathing. That battle cemented Grant's reputation as a leader Lincoln could trust to win, and it basically cut the Confederacy in half. Some argue that the story of the war was written at the Seige of Vicksburg. I'd never known that before visiting the national park where union canons reigned down terror on a cowering Confederate city.
The bus for the Bible School we created on the Mississippi Delta that July went through endless cotton fields where I saw a level of poverty I never knew existed in rural America. In the South, where towns were still basically halved along racial lines, I experienced what was left of Jim Crow, as much as a white guy could. That too was a wonderful history lesson.
But I also watched 17-year-old girls from our group get groped by little black boys and turn toward them smilingly. Had some kid from Sioux Center Christian School grabbed their buns the way those black boys did, those young women would have unloaded; but these kids were precious--these kids we were trying to save.
There was something weird about that, I thought.
The day we arrived, the thirty or so short-term volunteers we traveled with emptied a semi-trailer full of "mission-barrel" stuff from Iowa, everything from winter clothes to reject books, old stoves to knob-less window air conditioners. It was overwhelmingly hot, Mississippi Delta-hot, the sun laying a wet blanket over the world. Here we were, a couple dozen white people from Iowa, sweating our buns off, unloading that truck, while a whole crowd of what Mississippians might have called "colored folks," sat there watching and waiting for something free to be delivered from the hot maw of that 18-wheeler.
That was the very first thing we did, and I remember thinking that there was something wrong here, something way, way wrong.
If all the money that went into short-term missions were designated to help already established mission projects, if World Renew and World Missions suddenly became the recipient of all the bucks spent by well-meaning Christian institutions like Dordt and Northwestern on short-term missions, the outreach of the CRC and the RCA would look different.
But that doesn't happen. Instead, we glory in our servanthood and send hundreds of kids around the world. Why?
Because our kids come back changed. Most people would say that the recipients of our love and care don't change all that much--maybe they pick up a really cheap air conditioner; but we love short-term missions because our kids experience a wholly different world, and that's a great blessing.
We're rich. If we weren't, we couldn't afford to send two dozen kids to Mississippi or Bangladesh. Ten years ago already, I asked my classes how many of them had been across the oceans on some mission trip--basketball or bible schools or building crews. More than half. Most of the kids were from lower-middle class families and not rich. Yet more than half had well-punched passports from short-term mission trips. We are rich. We regularly do extravagant working vacations undertaken under the banner of our Lord.
But are those ventures the best use of all that money?
That's not an easy question to answer.
And just imagine what it's like to watch yet another bus load of white kids from Iowa come rolling into your community to be nice, to paint buildings, to lay cement or install toilets, yet another bus full. It wouldn't take long for you to start to think you're poor and maybe even less fit human beings than they are. Even a little deserving.
Just think Haiti.
Short-term missions are a blessing, but they can also deceive us into believing that we're doing something for others, when the real blessings of a rural Bible school belong to those who teach.
All that glitters is not gold in short-term missions, and anyone who pretends it is is naive.
This Saturday, at Unity Christian High School, Albert Strydhorst, presently the "Missionary in Residence" at Calvin Seminary, will speak on "Redeeming Short-Term missions," a topic that should be near and dear to the hearts of loads of people here in northwest Iowa, where countless short-terms missions will depart in the next year, all of them meaning so very well.
This too is an ad for the Mission Fest. You can register here. We'd love to have you join us.